JEFFREY TOMPKINS | June 26, 2018
Jeffrey Tompkins, a volunteer, supporter, and long-time friend of AVLF, recalls his very first Saturday Lawyer experience – with a surprising twist.
I will start with a little history.
Tom Sampson, one of the founders of my firm, got involved early in his career in a number of efforts to assist low-income citizens of Atlanta obtain legal services. He was involved with AVLF, Atlanta Legal Aid, and the Neighborhood Justice Center. Helping the under-served has always been important to him.
When I started with the firm fresh out of Emory Law School, it was made clear to me from the outset that pro bono work was expected. (While expecting—and indeed, requiring—pro bono work of young associates is fairly common now, I do not know how common it was back in the late 1980’s.)
Tom always stressed helping the under-served and underprivileged with their legal needs.
“If you are too big for the little man, you are too little for the big man,” he would often say.
At the time, I frankly did not know anything about AVLF. But that was about to change.
The young lawyers in the firm took Tom’s conviction about pro bono work to heart – at least to some degree, but perhaps not to the degree Tom would have liked. So, Tom took it upon himself to make sure that we all got the message.
At the time, I quite frankly did not know anything about AVLF. But that was about to change.
One Thursday afternoon, Tom walked into my office and asked about my plans for the weekend. I told him I did not have anything planned.
“Good,” he said. “I need you to go to the Saturday Lawyer Program.”
He explained generally what it was, but not in any great detail. “People who can’t afford to pay lawyers will come in for help with their legal needs,” he said, “and we help them.”
Saturday morning rolled around, and I was not all that enthusiastic about my weekend assignment.
“…Saturday?” I asked.
Had it been Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday or even Friday, it would have been fine with me. But it was Saturday. And of all the things I might have done on a Saturday, they would not have included anything like that.
But when the senior partner says, “this is what I need you to do,” that’s what you do.
Saturday morning rolled around, and I was not all that enthusiastic about my weekend assignment. To whom would I be assigned? What kind of legal problem would they have? Would I be able to help them? I pondered all of these things as I made my way to the office. When I arrived, a staff person walked me through the process, and I was soon off to see my first client.
And that’s when things – mainly my attitude – changed. I walked into the meeting room and lo and behold, my first client is a young lady who was in my high school class at Atlanta’s Frederick Douglass High School.
* * * * *
Now, let me tell you a little bit about Douglass High School. Back then, Douglass was the largest high school in Atlanta, and I would dare say the best high school in the city. The students, all of whom were African American, came from every socioeconomic segment of the African American population in Atlanta.
But perhaps what meant the most to me was that I was getting to help someone I knew personally—whose luck had been a lot different than mine, and who had had some challenges in life.
Certainly, most of the students came from a working-class background. But the school served the largest housing development—what was then called a housing project in those days—in Atlanta, so you had a host of kids from that community. There also were the children of many of the city’s politicians, doctors, lawyers, ministers, and business people – all these students from various socioeconomic backgrounds were together under one roof. And it was great.
So, my client and I had known one another for years, but I had not seen her since the day we graduated.
When I walked into the room, it was readily apparent my classmate’s path had been quite different than mine.
While I had gone from Douglass to Morehouse and then on to Emory, she had entered the workforce after high school and had experienced some level of financial difficulty. But none of that mattered now. The moment I saw her, I felt relieved. My first Saturday Lawyer Program client was not a stranger, but someone I had known for nearly a decade.
I could tell instantly that the feeling was mutual. I suspect the joy and pleasure of seeing a familiar face meant the world to her. It certainly meant the world to me. But perhaps what meant the most to me was that I was getting to help someone I knew personally—whose luck had been a lot different than mine, and who had had some challenges in life. This was an opportunity to do something that was real, something that was important—to represent someone who had a face that I knew well.
The matter involved a rental issue with a landlord who was not treating her fairly. Once the landlord got a letter from a lawyer, his attitude changed. When the landlord realized that the young lady had a lawyer stepping in, his position changed, and the matter was resolved successfully. My classmate and now client was very happy with the outcome. And I was happy that I had helped someone in need.
* * * * *
Growing up in northwest Atlanta, my friends and I would often engage in philosophical discussions about all sorts of things. Once we discussed what gives a person the most joy and happiness.
I believed then—and believe now—that the greatest joy and happiness comes from being able to help someone else. Pro bono work—particularly the Saturday Lawyer Program—allows young lawyers to use their newly acquired talents to help those who cannot help themselves.
I do not think there is a better feeling in the world.
Partner, Thomas Kennedy Sampson & Tompkins LLP
Jeff Tompkins is a dear friend of AVLF. He’s been volunteering with the Saturday Lawyer Program since the 1980’s. Most recently, Jeff has been serving on the Steering Committee for AVLF’s first ever annual giving campaign, which you can read about here.